As Mississippi State gets set for its second year under head coach Mike Leach, calling the upcoming season unpredictable might be the understatement of all understatements.
The Bulldogs are coming off a 4–7 campaign that featured more twists and turns than any Mississippi back road. When all was said and done, there was reason for both optimism and concern as Leach's tenure in Starkville moves forward. On the positive side for Mississippi State, Leach's Air Raid offense showed signs late last year that it was developing both the performance level and the pieces to take off. And the Bulldogs were incredibly solid defensively all year long. If that all carries over into this year, Mississippi State might be in fine shape.
On the other side, there's the worry of inconsistency. The Bulldogs were totally ineffective offensively at times last year, and should that again happen this year, Mississippi State is obviously in trouble. And that's without mentioning all the depth concerns on defense.
Previewing Mississippi State's Offense for 2021
When Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello set an SEC record by passing for 623 yards in an upset of then-defending national champion LSU in last year's season opener, it looked like a confirmation that Leach's Air Raid was going to work just fine in the SEC. It didn't take long before that certainty faded.
All year long in 2020, Mississippi State struggled against zone defenses. By midseason, Costello was hurt and ultimately lost his job to freshman Will Rogers. Though Rogers progressed as the season wore on, the Bulldogs never did completely click on offense. They ended up scoring 14 or fewer points in five of their 11 games. In the month of October, Mississippi State scored only 30 total points over four games.
Still, the Bulldogs did improve offensively as the year went on, and the players behind that progression might be set up to do even bigger things in 2021.
Rogers is the odds-on favorite to begin the year as the starting quarterback, though he'll be challenged by Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham and highly touted true freshman Sawyer Robertson. Rogers might be set for a breakout year, as his awareness and production increased as last year went along. Plus, Leach quarterbacks always have a strong chance to put up big numbers.
Part of Rogers' growth a season ago was due to his own development, but another component was the emergence of pieces around him — almost all of whom are back in 2021. Receiver Jaden Walley became an All-SEC Freshman as he broke a 43-year-old Mississippi State record for single-season receiving yardage by a freshman. Freshman running backs Jo'quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson both began to find their footing as pass-catchers and runners who could keep defenses honest against Leach's pass-happy attack.
The offensive line returns basically intact from a year ago — an offensive line that, like the offense as a whole, improved as last year went on.
Previewing Mississippi State's Defense for 2021
Mississippi State's biggest concern defensively in 2021 is likely depth. And against an SEC schedule that grinds teams up, that's a huge issue. However the Bulldogs seemingly have an extremely solid starting group.
Martin Emerson and Emmanuel Forbes can make a case for being the best cornerback duo in the league. Forbes was picked as Freshman All-SEC last year by conference coaches after leading the SEC with five interceptions. Emerson was an honorable mention All-American by Pro Football Focus, which ranked him as the No. 6 cover corner in all of FBS. Emerson ranked 10th nationally last year with 11 forced incompletions, and he allowed just one touchdown reception in the regular season. The Bulldogs also have multiple options at safety with starting experience.
At linebacker, Mississippi State has talent, led by top returning tackler Aaron Brule, but depth is certainly a question at the position, and it won't be easy to replace the leadership of longtime middle linebacker Erroll Thompson.
Up front, like at linebacker, Mississippi State has reliable pieces. But those pieces are backed up in many cases by inexperienced players.
Previewing Mississippi State's Specialists for 2021
The Bulldogs bring back one of the country's most reliable kickers of a year ago. Brandon Ruiz went 10-for-12 on his field-goal tries in 2020, was 24-for-24 on his extra-point attempts and had 37 touchbacks on 43 kickoffs. The only two field goals Ruiz missed all year were from 40-plus yards.
Tucker Day is also back for what would be his fourth year as Mississippi State's starting punter.
In the return game, the Bulldogs have options, perhaps none better than the electric Lideatrick Griffin, who averaged 34.5 yards on four kickoff returns in Mississippi State's bowl game last year.
The success or failure of this season likely comes down to whether the Bulldogs can finally find offensive consistency with Leach's Air Raid. Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett proved a season ago the he could work with whatever he had to make the Bulldogs respectable defensively. So if that continues, and the Air Raid takes off — and the youngsters flourish — Mississippi State has the potential to start trending quickly in an upward direction.
National Ranking: 49
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(Jaden Walley photo by Austin Perryman/Mississippi State Athletics)